My lovely little oriental doll: On yellow fever


she shows no emotion at all
stares into space like a dead China doll
— Elliott Smith, “Waltz #2”


The doll image is of a postcard I taped to my refrigerator while living in Chicago some two decades ago, along with a second postcard by the same artist (below). One summer day I held a well-attended house party. Proceedings were interrupted when several female acquaintances, two white Americans and an Asian American, dragged me away from the party and sat me down on the lawn in front of my house. They were upset about the postcards, which objectified Asian women in the worst way. They felt it their duty to grill me at length. Most vociferous of the three was the Asian, a Korean American. The doll pictured above depicted battery and clearly celebrated violence against women, she said. She could not understand why I had these pictures displayed for all to see. She questioned my ethics and wondered why an educated person would be in possession of such images in the first place.


When poets speak of death: 100 aphorisms and epigrams on massage

“When poets speak of death, they call it the place without breasts.”
Ramon Gomez de la Serna, 1917

The most eloquent means of seduction is the direct and forthright sexual proposal, though it rarely works in practice. The conventional romantic approach of dating or wooing is a better bet yet time-consuming, expensive and often insincere as well. Midpoint between these two approaches is massage, the ideal space for sexual negotiation, whereby one can get right down to business or pretend not to as the occasion demands.

Men massaging men: Three countries

John Singer Sergant, Massage in a Bath House, 1891 (with permission of Harvard Art Museums)
John Singer Sargent, Massage in a Bath House, 1891 (Harvard Art Museums)

Istanbul, Turkey. The attendant flushes me with soapy water on the marble octagon in the center of the hot area, whose domed chamber has holes cut out in the shape of moons and stars to let in sunlight. In other countries, there would be a bathing pool where the platform is. There is no actual bath in the Turkish bath. Despite knowing this, it is still a bit of a letdown when I confirm it with my own eyes, perhaps because it’s the famous Cagaloglu Hamami, built in 1741 near the Grand Bazaar in Sultanahmet. The Turkish bath devolved from the great Roman baths, which accommodated up to 3,000 bathers (the Diocletian baths’ swimming pool was the size of a football field), down through the paltrier affairs of the Byzantine era, until the Muslims banned communal immersion in water altogether as unsanitary and capped over the pools. Thereafter, the marble octagon kept on in the Turkish bathhouse as a vestigial relic.

In search of Malaysian massage


To the east of Jalan Sultan Ismail Road and the Bukit Bintang monorail station is generic modernity—office buildings, a grand Tous Les Jours bakery whose wifi doesn’t work, an Espressamente café at the swank Pavilion shopping mall whose does. A better indication of old Kuala Lumpur lies to the west of the monorail in a bustling rectangular-shaped neighborhood bounded along the sides by Jalan Bukit Bintang and Tengkat Tong Shin streets and Changkat Bukit Bintang and Jalan Tong Shin at the eastern and western ends. Drab and formless in the sweltering daytime, the area jumps colorfully to life in the evening with its cacophony of people and cuisines, and could be described as a microcosm of Malaysian society itself.

Japanese voyeur massage: Theories

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Prolonged sitting in front of the computer is really getting to your neck and shoulders. You need a massage. Guys are so lucky, you think, because they can just walk into any parlor like it’s no big deal. Your husband doesn’t have a clue as to how to give you a rubdown and is bored with you in bed anyway. How long has it been since you two last made love? That Royal Treatment Massage Therapy shop you keep passing by on your way home everydaymaybe it’s finally time to check it out. You hope nothing funny goes on in there, though. All you want is some nice relief and relaxation. It is after all your first paid massage.

The lobby is attractive and decked out in warm colors. Hmm…looks legitimate and safe. The menu lists 60-minute whole body oil massage at 9,000 yen. Ouch. Or acupressure for 6,000 yen. That’ll do. The cheery receptionist asks if you’d prefer a male or female therapist. You ask if there’s any difference. Men have a strength advantage, she says, but otherwise you’ll get the same treatment from both. You go for the male. He appears and leads you to your room. Though fat and unappealing, he immediately puts you at ease with his serious manner and professional bearing in his white smock.

Icon, index, symbol, semen

The shameful culprit: your standard pearl-white liquid hand soap, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the look, texture and consistency of semen.

Not content with meeting the facts, the thinking person sees in all things signs of something more, “tokens for something else” (Roland Barthes, Mythologies). I shall take semen as my subject matter. A rather plain and coarse substance, to be sure, yet as suffused with meaning in context as it is with sperm cells. To get a grip on the slippery analysis that follows, I employ American philosopher C. S. Peirce’s threefold classification of signs into the icon, the index, and the symbol.

A sign is something that stands for something else. The type of sign familiar to most people is the street sign. Street signs convey information by language, icons, or a combination of both. An icon is an image that stands for something by virtue of resemblance, functioning for the benefit of easy and immediate identification—a curved arrow warning of a bend in the road ahead, the schematic male and female figures indicating a restroom. Icons particularly aid people who may not speak the local language; thus airports contain the most elaborate collection of iconic signs of any public space.

Massaging the masseuse in Beijing and Bangkok

massage 1gaiMoney is just money. But sexual companionship is priceless.” Lawrence Osborne, Bangkok Days

Xia. Hujialou, Beijing. One day I chance upon a new massage parlor in a leafy neighborhood south of the Workers’ Stadium. The girl I get, Xia (pronounced Syah), is very pretty, though this isn’t at first apparent in her shapeless tracksuit uniform, plain ponytail and no makeup in the low lighting. She steps out while I put on the required disposable shorts and returns a few minutes later. She strokes me slowly and sensuously, just as I like it, before pulling my shorts down to massage my buttocks and work her hands into my inner thighs, though without moving the treatment into overt sexual territory. After replacing the shorts she turns me over and finishes off with her hands back inside for some more erotic teasing. During the session I learn she’s twenty-eight and from the Sichuan city of Mianyang, which suffered moderate damage in the massive 2008 earthquake, when she was still living there. In a familiar refrain, she caught her husband in an affair and they’ve been separated for several years now; her kid is being brought up by her parents while she ekes out a living in the comparatively lucrative Beijing massage market.